Monday, October 20, 2008

How Do You Know If A $700 Bottle of Wine (or Beer) Is Any Good?

Man, there's just been a lot to talk about lately. Interesting article, here, from England that summarizes what quite a few articles over the past few years have been saying, particularly about wine. The basic gist, and we talked about this a little during the podcast on our Oktoberfest tastings, is that except in the case of a pure blind tasting, your consumption is tainted by any number of factors that may influence whether some consumable (wine, beer, cheese, etc) is "good" or not.

The implication, and sometimes the explicit underpinning, of these articles though, I disagree with - the idea that we can have "taste experts." And the usually associated statement that the experts are fools because even they are fooled in true blind tastings! HAHA! Understand this first though: just because I like something doesn't mean you will. Moreover, just because I like something doesn't mean it is "good" or "the best" in any empirical way. We try to avoid using relative comparators on this site for that exact reason. It's also one of my biggest problems with sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer - this idea that one beer can be an "A" and this other can be a "B."

But, what I see as a "taste expert" is not someone, like the stereotypical sommelier, who looks down his nose at the wine list and says " will enjoy this California Pinot Noir, it is the finest pinot on the west coast." That statement really doesn't mean anything. How does he know I will enjoy it? Is it really the finest pinot, or just of the pinots he's tried? or just the pinots that are that particular list? according to whom? according to who's tastes? Just on the West Coast? What about Europe or Australia or South America? These are the kinds of comments that we need to be leary of and ask questions.

What I do see as a "taste expert" is someone who's opinion you trust because they are upfront about their biases, can objectively explain flavor components (the extent such a thing is possible) in an easily understandable manner, and tell you something about the beverage and its maker. In other words, give you all the information possible to allow you to make your own decisions. We try to do this on this site.

Which brings us back, for the second day, to that $700 bottle of wine (or beer). How do you know it is any good? If you buy it and then drink it, you must convince yourself it is good because you can't have thrown away $700 on a bad beverage. If the label is a fancy producer, well, the producer must not have screwed up. If the style is a trendy style, well, you must like the style. But, you're also not likely to buy a $700 bottle and put into a blind tasting with 3 other bottles of varying vintage and quality. As the studies show, there is strong correlation between knowing the price and enjoying the beverage.

But, you are not paying, entirely, for the taste. You are paying for all of the things that we talked about on Monday. You are paying for the fact that someone else will pay for it if you don't. You are paying for the right to be one of a few people on the planet even capable of evaluating its taste. You are paying for the privilege of opening it up for friends and celebrating an occassion with a special bottle.

But price isn't the only factor that influences taste. Labels, or more precisely, names, can affect taste as well. Well so-and-so can't possibly make a bad wine. It's a Pinot Noir, I love pinot noirs. Ohhh...Tomme Arthur brewed this. Ooooo...Mikkel brewed this and he only has one name, so it must be good. Ooooo...this comes from Stone Brewing, it must be good. Or, conversely, Leinies made this, it must suck. I hate anything by Coors. A rauchbier, it must be awful. Knowing the label skews our perceptions, both positively and negatively.

The one we had a problem with in the blind tasting is other peoples taste. One person would say "I think it's X" and all of the sudden all four of us agreed that it must be so. This is particularly true where one person at the table is considered an "expert" in the area. I sat at a dinner table with 15 guys, a few of whom are respected amongst our friends as knowledgeable about wine. And each time wine was poured we waited for their pronouncement before we would chirp in with our agreeance. Group dynamics and peer pressure are very hard to break.

Of course, Timothy Leary recognized that what he called "set and setting" can influence your trip, so to speak. If you're in a bad mood, if you are in a fancy restaurant, if you are celebrating a special occassion, if you have a nagging pain in your foot; all of these things can influence your openness and acceptance of the thing in front of you and your perception of whether that thing is "good" or "bad." Leinenkugel's makes their living on reminding people of their adventures in the Northwoods. The good times people have while drinking a beer gives them a positive association and overall sense of "good" about the beer as well.

Moreover, a lot of this agreeance and persuasion comes from our own internal doubts about our tastes and our knowledge. The wine industry in particular (mostly because the beer industry hasn't picked up on it, for the most part) likes to let consumers think they know a lot, but constantly remind us that there are those out there who always know much, much more. They perpetuate this idea that wine is so complex - that while having a basic grasp is to be lauded, you need to let the experts really separate the wheat from the chaff; heck, even the experts have rankings. And we let it happen because we aren't confident in our tastes and knowledge - we always think, man, if I just knew what Barolo meant. I remember someone saying something about caramel and munich, but what does that mean? Is "double" misspelled on this bock? Well, Michael Jackson liked it so it must be good. Geez, Todd Almstrom thinks this is great and he runs a huge website about beer - it must be good. Man, Capital is known for great German beers, the Autumnal Fire is awesome.

So, how do you know if it's good? Can you afford it? Irrespective of taste, did you enjoy drinking it? Was the taste pleasing? If you answered "Yes" then it was good. That's really all there is to it.


  1. Ok let me confess straight up that in the summer of 1996 I was 0 for 10 in a blind beer tasting contest. To be fair it was held at a bar at midnight and I had been drinking Leine's Big Butt since about 6pm. In retrospect I feel no shame about not being able to tell Bud Light from Miller Lite under those conditions.

    I guess if you are going to spend a whole lot on anything you better have a pretty good idea that you are gonna like it going in. Your tastes after all are the ones that need to be satisfied.

    For example I have never in my life liked hot dogs. Not because of what they are made of or anything like that they just happen to be one food that I have never liked. Now if a hot dog expert (is there such a thing you think?) told me that for a little more money I could have one of the best hot dogs in the world I would still politely decline.

    Wine and beer are always a matter of taste and if you are buying something based solely on what an expert says I think you are doing it for the wrong reasons. You should base your purchases on advice from someone you trust and who you have built a relationship with. Know your butcher, know your fish guy, and know your wine/beer guy is the advice for a happy life. You can also just be confident that you know what you like and could care less what other people think and buy your standby. Don't try and convince me that two dollar wine is awesome but anyone who thinks this is welcome to it.

    There is a snobbishness in the wine world and more and more in the beer world. It's too bad but it make just be our nature. Hopefully most people are out there having fun and enjoying whatever thery are buying and drinking. I'll take a drinker over a collector any day.

  2. I experienced this to an extent this weekend, when I went on the Minhas tour with a group of friends for a bachelor party. My initial reaction was "Minhas - it must be terrible." But sitting in the tasting room with a group of friends, I found myself having a great time and enjoying the Minhas beers, especially the Huber bock and their new 1845 pils. The first tastings weren't off the charts (I thought the pils was too watery with not enough sharpness) but after a few different samples I was enjoying myself.

    I knew I was drunk, however, when I thought the Mountain Creek Light was "damn good" as the label said.

  3. OK, I actually eschew beer but am big into wine and one of the most competent wine directors I know has a phrase: wine doesn't become snobby until after it's bottled.

    I think the primary purpose of the so-called (and often self-proclaimed!) expert is to steer you in the direction of what you'll like based upon your tastes.

    Unfortunately not everyone agrees with us. . .

    I will, however, cease patronizing establishments that I perceive as snobby in that regard. I don't need to be, well, patronized.


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